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Paintings explore emotions of Khmer Rouge victims

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Battambang native Sin Rithy's evocative paintings are inspired by the portraits of Khmer Rouge victims displayed at the Tuol Sleung museum in Phnom Penh. Photograph: supplied

Battambang visual artist Sin Rithy tried to define what the victims of Khmer Rouge regime had on their mind through his latest series of paintings, titled What Were They Thinking?

The paintings, now on display at Romeet Gallery, were created with reference to photographs of genocide victims at the Tuol Sleng (S-21) museum, and with a glance, they give the viewer an emotional resonance with the past, while being anchored in the present through Rithy’s perspective.

When asked the background for the title, the 22-year-old artist discussed his curiousity of the victims’ emotions.

“When looking at the photographs, I wonder how they felt and how scared and hopeless they were, thinking of the loss of loved ones while death crept in,” he said.

One of the paintings titled Everything Changes shows the face of a victim drawn in black and white, representing the absence of colour from the dress standards enforced by the Khmer Rouge regime.

The painting had no clear form, but the black and white paint rises from the canvas like smoke from the underworld, chilling the spine and indicating the sadness and loneliness of the victim.

Romeet Gallery curator Kate O’Hara explained that Rithy’s works in What Were They Thinking? have a positive impact on Cambodian arts.

“There is a misconception that arts from Cambodia are either about Angkor Wat or the Khmer Rouge,” said O’Hara. “It got to a point where those art forms were discredited, but Rithy’s work makes us think about them again and understand what they mean now to the new generation through his perspective.”

Rithy’s mother’s memories of the Khmer Rouge also gave the young artist vivid images to narrate through his paintings.

“My mother always shares her experiences and feelings about the long hours of labour with insufficient food during the regime,” he said.

Viewers may differ in their understandings of the paintings, but there is one main message Rithy wants to bring to our consciousness.

“[The] Khmer Rouge is a lesson learnt for every Cambodian, especially the youngsters,” said the young painter. “Selfishness should be eliminated from oneself because what we do always affects other people, so think about their feelings.”

What Were They Thinking? will be on exhibit until August 3 at Romeet Gallery, #34E Street 178, Phnom Penh.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chanvetey Vann at newsroom@phnompenhpost.com

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